Because I’m a flamenco guitarist, people often ask me about this, because they look pretty similar. Let me tell you a little story.
Once upon a time there were two brothers. Their musical talent was evident very early on, and they both took up guitar. Though they enjoyed listening to electric guitar, they were more drawn to the very special sound of acoustic guitars with nylon strings. No doubt part of this was due to their parents, who would listen to classical and Spanish music.
José was an excellent student, nearly always at the top of his class, and he quickly gained notoriety through performing classical guitar at recitals. He spent hours every day practicing guitar exercises and memorizing music scores. His classical guitar teacher was strict, emphasizing discipline and a strong work ethic. José admired the elegant sound and fluid technique of people like Pepe Romero. Upon finishing high school, his skill was such that he gained a scholarship to attend a very fancy music school.
Eduardo took a different route. He didn’t like school, and didn’t really enjoy the silent atmosphere in recitals. Instead, he began playing with groups in town as soon as he was able, splitting his time with electric and nylon-string guitar. He was drawn to the passion and wildness of flamenco, with the dancers’ lightning footwork and the raw cry of flamenco song, and his idol was Paco De Lucia. He liked being spontaneous, and preferred playing and jamming with others to long hours of solitary practice. He mostly learned by watching others and developing the ability to play by ear.
José played a rather expensive classical guitar, and he treated it with kid gloves to keep it in pristine condition. Eduardo’s flamenco guitar had a tap plate (golpeador) so he could play percussive sounds on the top without damaging his guitar, and this allowed him to indulge his enjoyment of a wilder style of playing. Their mother scrupulously avoided favoring one son over the other, as she loved both. But deep down she had to admit that she wished that Eduardo would settle down, be a little more dignified, and frankly, play more like José, whose style was more suited to her taste. José didn’t mind if Eduardo tried out his guitar, but admonished him not to damage the top. Their father had done stints as a gigging musician before becoming a doctor, and though he was somewhat concerned about Eduardo’s penchant for being a free spirit and having partying friends, a part of him vicariously enjoyed his son’s sense of musical adventure.
José performed concertos and studied hard at Eastman School of Music. As he approached graduation, he pondered his career options. It seemed to him that he could try the classical guitar competition route to see if he could rise to the top of the small classical guitar world, and make a living playing concerts, recitals, and seminars. Short of that, he figured he could land a teaching position at a university if he were to get a graduate degree.
Eduardo finished high school, but without any academic honors. He traveled to Spain to get even more steeped in the flamenco traditions, and after meeting lots of people and getting his name around, he began to break into the professional flamenco scene in Sevilla. His parents were supportive of his travel, but when he didn’t return home to go to college, they became worried about his future. Eduardo’s father, though concerned, was glad that his son was pursuing what had once been his own dream, and he finally managed to assuage some of his wife’s fears about an unstable type of career.
The brothers spent some years struggling to each find their own path. During this time the brothers made little contact with each other, but eventually they had a rapprochement and struck upon the idea of seeing if their styles could be combined. After some writing and rehearsing, they wound up doing a series of duo concerts, making their parents very happy.
I hope that you enjoyed this little bit of illustrative, if corny, fiction. :-) In a more literal sense, a flamenco guitar is quite similar to a classical guitar. It generally is built of lighter wood, which helps make the characteristic bright flamenco tone that can be heard amongst flamenco dancers, which is no mean feat. Its golpeador is made of hard plastic, and protects the top of the instrument. The classical guitar, in turn, is usually made of heavier, denser wood, which gives a rich, warm tone and held notes tend to sustain longer. If you want to get a fine flamenco guitar, like the one I have, or a fine classical guitar, I would recommend Andy Culpepper, who lives in the Ithaca, NY area.